Bob Schieffer has made it official: He’s going to retire from CBS News in January, just before his 72nd birthday.
The moderator of “Face the Nation” for the last 17 years is not going to retire from Washington, D.C., or from life, as he made clear last week in a long and often raucous conversation with The Insider that was less about looking back over his 51 years in journalism and victory over bladder cancer than about looking forward.
He can take pride in so much about his award-winning four decades with CBS News, but especially in his stewardship of “The CBS Evening News” for 18 months, during which time viewership rose between Dan Rather’s exit in 2005 and Katie Couric’s ascendance in 2006. It was, he said, his greatest adventure.
Between now and retirement he’s got plenty to do. Starting this month in Washington is a monthly series of interviews/seminars on policy topics germane to the presidential election. And he’s got commitments to the journalism school named for him at Texas Christian University, not the least of which is to raise money for a new facility that can train Schieffer school graduates for careers on any media platform.
Plus Mr. Schieffer continues to appear with Honky Tonk Confidential, the country-Western band with whom he wrote and performs “TV Anchorman,” among other songs.
The Insider’s conversation with Mr. Schieffer starts high atop Mount Rushmore, where last summer he decided he wanted to retire after chronicling one last presidential campaign, one he characterizes as “a great race.”
TelevisionWeek: You’ve been dosey-do-ing with retirement for several years now. Can you describe the moment in which you finally knew this was real? Was it all your decision and yours alone?
Mr. Schieffer: Oh, yeah. My wife, Pat, and I this summer went out to South Dakota. I had never seen Mount Rushmore. A friend of mine arranged for the superintendent of the park to take us up to the top of Mount Rushmore. Normally they don’t do that. He took us on a hike up to the top. I mean it was a climb for two people like us. It took us about an hour and a half. We climbed up there and sat on George Washington’s head and looked out over the countryside. We thought: “This is really fun.” I thought: “I ought to be doing more of this kind of thing.” That’s when I really made the decision. I’m not ever going to stop work. I’m not ever going to retire completely.
TelevisionWeek: Would you like to have something to say about who succeeds you as moderator of “Face the Nation”?
Mr. Schieffer: No. I don’t. And I wouldn’t expect to be asked. And I don’t plan to offer any suggestions. There are a lot of qualified people, but I wouldn’t want to get into that.
TelevisionWeek: What kind of a role would you like to continue to have in the public eye?
Mr. Schieffer: I’m going to have, at the very minimum, an office here at CBS. I’ll be doing speaking. I’ll be doing stuff for the company. I’m going to stay involved. I may write another book. And I hope I can drop in on big events from time to time, sort of like my hero Tom Brokaw does.
I can hope to do things like this for a while. But I’ve covered politics for so long, I don’t want to be like one of these senators who stays there until he gets beat or until they have to haul him out on a gurney. I’d like to step away while I’m still in good health and while I’m still having fun. So that’s what I’m going to do. They named a journalism school for me down at TCU and I want to spend more time helping the school and less time at CBS. But I have no plan to go and sit on somebody’s front porch and look at the sunset.
One of the things I’ve done for the Schieffer school, as we like to call it, is that each year on the anniversary of the naming, we have a symposium. I invite leading journalists to come to TCU, and for an hour and a half we just sit around and talk about the news. It’s always sold out. We always have about 2,000 people. We’ve really had some of the big names in journalism. The first year, we had Tom Friedman, Tom Brokaw, Bob Woodward, Jim Lehrer. Last year, I had [Tim] Russert, among others, and Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times. This year [April 2] we will have Bob Novak, Andrea Mitchell, Roger Mudd and Al Neuharth. I’m going to continue to organize these kinds of seminars.
The Schieffer School of Journalism and the Center for Strategic & International Studies are going to form a partnership. Once a month, starting next month, I will interview somebody at CSIS with an invited audience of media and think-tank people on issues we think the candidates ought to be talking about this year. It may be on C-SPAN, we’re kind of working that out. We’re going to do workshops at TCU. I might get some really good investigative reporter to come stay on the campus for a week or a couple of days to just talk to the kids. Our plan is to have the school newspaper, the school television program and the school radio station news department and the school Web site all operate out of a common newsroom. That newsroom will be the studio for the newscast. Nobody knows what medium they’re going to be working in in the years to come.
We want them to come out of there with experience in all of those fields. We’re going to be raising money for a whole new facility there. I’ll be spending some time doing that.
I’m going to have a lot going on in my life. I have another book coming out in September, a collection of my commentaries. I’ve written about 700 of them and we’ve boiled that down to about 180, and there may be some more to add to it as the year goes on here. We’ve done it by themes, rather than chronologically. I’ve written a long forward and a long afterward, which in themselves are sort of commentaries, and I offer, with each commentary, a little critique of most of them.
You know, at the time this is what was going on and this is why I wrote it. Sometimes I got it wrong and I’ll say, you know, I got dropped off of several Christmas card lists after this one.
TelevisionWeek: What was the most controversial of the commentaries in the book?
Mr. Schieffer: I guess during the time of the Clinton impeachment, there were some that weren’t altogether complimentary to Bill Clinton. Some people would not like some things I’ve said sometimes about what was going on with the war. But I was surprised at how many that were written on holidays that were selected for the book. I’ve got poems I wrote on Valentine’s Day.
I’ve got my reflections on holiday meals. Some of my favorites I wrote on Father’s Day. In one, I remembered the first boy-girl party we had at our house when my daughters were 12 or 13. My instructions [from them] were: “Just act normal. Please, Dad, just act normal.” I write about the pleasure of voting. I have one chapter called “How Washington Works and Doesn’t,” which is one of my favorites. I have a collection of obits that I’ve written over the years. Ronald Reagan and I shared a love for obituaries. Reagan always said one of the happiest moments in the day for him was to wake up in the morning and discover he wasn’t in the obits. And I’ve reached the stage in life where I understand what he was talking about.
TelevisionWeek: Now that this retirement issue is set in stone publicly, how do you feel about approaching this milestone? What dictated the timing of the news?
Mr. Schieffer: This is what I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I just think it’s the time. That’s the way I’ve always done. I always like to go with my gut feeling. I had a high school speech teacher. She said, “You always want to leave the stage while they’re still applauding. You don’t want to be standing there when someone has to get a hook and drag you off.” It’s one of those things you always remember, like “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November. …”
I think it’s important to know when you should exit stage right or left. Things are going very well for me. I feel very good about the things I have done. I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s just time to start moving off stage. At least off this one. I’m never going to go to work any place, I mean I’m not going to work at some other network. I always want to be from CBS. This has been my home and it will continue to be.
TelevisionWeek: Could you have asked for a more dramatic and even historic campaign with which to step down?
Mr. Schieffer: No. no. People always ask, “What’s your favorite campaign?” and I have to say it was the McGovern campaign in ’72 because it was my first. There’s just nothing like being on a national campaign and being on that airplane and flying around the country and being with the national press. It’s thrilling. There’s just no other word you can put on it. So that will always be my favorite. But 1988, of course, was very, very exciting. The ’76 campaign when I was the White House correspondent and Gerald Ford, our first unelected president, was running, and I covered him.
I always have such wonderful memories of that. But this one is right up there. We haven’t had one like this, really, ever. I couldn’t have asked for more. It’s a wonderful event for the country too. We need more excitement in our campaigns. We need more fun. They’ve become more nasty and awful.
TelevisionWeek: Do you think that being freed from the daily grind makes it easier to write books?
Mr. Schieffer: Yes, but I have no specific plans beyond the one I have coming out. I just think somehow if I’m feeling good and everything—and books are hard—I might have one more in me.
TelevisionWeek: What about a novel?
Mr. Schieffer: I wish I knew how to write one. I might try one. I just wouldn’t know how to start. An editor I had one time said some people are good at remembering things and some people are good at making up things.
TelevisionWeek: Do you think that having written some songs now might help?
Mr. Schieffer: That might help me a little bit. I’m going to keep writing songs too. I get a big kick out of that.
TelevisionWeek: As you are forced to consider your legacy over the next few months, what do you think you will be best remembered for?
Mr. Schieffer: I have no idea. I wouldn’t know where to start. It was fun for me. I can’t think of anything I would rather have done. It’ll be up to others to consider what my contribution was. I know one thing: I was blessed. I grew up and got to do what I wanted to do when I was a little boy. If my time ended this afternoon, I would not feel shortchanged.
TelevisionWeek: Is there any part of the Schieffer record you think needs further setting straight? Or is there anything you’d like to embellish?
Mr. Schieffer: No, not really. I mean I’m very proud of that year and a half I spent at “Evening News.” It was the greatest adventure of my life. Vietnam and covering the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 were the biggest stories that I covered. They were the ones that took the greatest emotional toll on me. Moderating the debate in 2004 between Kerry and Bush, I have to say, was the most challenging intellectual assignment that I had. Those are the things I think back on.
When I wrote “This Just In,” somebody said, “You’re the first guy in television that ever wrote a book that didn’t have it in for somebody.” The fact is I’ve had a great life and I’ve loved every moment of my career. There’ve been ups and downs and, sure, I’ve made some mistakes. I’m sure I’ve hurt some people along the way and I’ve hurt some people in my life. Those are the things I regret, but I wouldn’t even change the mistakes, because I learned more from my mistakes generally than I did from the things I did well.
TelevisionWeek: You’ve gotten numerous awards, including six Emmys. You also were honored by the Fort Worth Cats [minor league baseball team] with a bobble-head doll in your likeness. Where do you keep your Emmys? Is the bobble-head in the same space? And which draws more appreciative “oooohs” from visitors?
Mr. Schieffer: I have to tell you it’s the bobble-head. A lot of people who have won Emmys have said to me: “Damn, I wish I had gotten a bobble-head doll.”
TelevisionWeek: Maybe the Emmys should become bobble-heads.
Mr. Schieffer: Maybe so. I keep the Emmys at home. But I have bobble-heads at home and in the office. I’ve got to tell you, I love the Emmys but I haven’t had anybody come up to me and say, “Would you give me one of your Emmys?” A lot of people say, “Could I have a bobble-head?”
TelevisionWeek: Describe a perfect day come next February. Or at least elements of a perfect day.
Mr. Schieffer: If I wake up and I’m not in the obits.
The Insider: Bob Schieffer
Feb 3, 2008 • Post A Comment
Bob Schieffer has made it official: He’s going to retire from CBS News in January, just before his 72nd birthday.